Archive for the ‘Energy’ Category

There is now less than a month until the United States will elect their next President. In the past 8 years President Bush has gone out of his way to reject, suppress, and generally ignore action on climate change issues. During Bush’s years in office however, climate change has slowly risen on the national and international agenda, which has to be a good thing.

Everyone has already forgotten about Bush, and he has long since stopped pretending to be worried about climate change, saying ‘Goodbye from the worlds biggest polluter’ to the other G8 leaders back in July, with a nice big grin on his face.

Much is often made of the perceived necessity for the US to take a lead by example on climate change, and encourage the rest of the world to follow suit. This is a view often emphasised by Americans themselves (see Jonathon Porritt’s recent review of Thomas L. Friedman’s new book) but as the world collectively realises what we may be facing, leadership from the United States becomes less and less relevant. The scenes in Bali last December may have been a wake-up call to this effect, as US representatives were told to ‘…..get out of the way’ of new international negotiations, to cheers from representatives from the majority of nations present.

However, the position of the US is undoubtedly important, if not in persuading other nations to act, then purely in terms of reducing their own contribution to global warming as one of the worlds largest polluters. With this in mind, anyone who realises the importance of minimising climate change will be carefully examining the environmental ideals of both Presidential candidates.

Realclimate recently examined what the vice-presidential candidates said in their televised debate about climate change (see here), with fairly predictable results. Of the two candidates, the Republican John McCain is, unsurprisingly, the one who’s less bothered about climate change. His running mate Sarah Palin has repeatedly stated that she isn’t sure that climate change is being caused by humans, but she doesn’t think the cause is important – the response to it is the important bit. As Realclimate (and countless others) point out – the cause is VERY important if you want to know how to tackle the problem.

McCain favours a cap and trade system, and wants to reduce emissions by 60% by 2050, but isn’t going to force small businesses to be included in this. Tellingly, McCain’s page of plans for global warming finish with an emphasis on ‘adaptation’. He’s going to need a much larger section on that bit if he gets elected.

In comparison, Barack Obama seems to be a long way ahead, at least in terms of rhetoric. According to his website, Barack Obama ‘supports implementation of an economy-wide cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon emissions by the amount scientists say is necessary: 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.’. However, his running mate, Joe Biden, recently highlighted their belief in ‘clean coal’ technology and the role it can play in their carbon reduction plans – a technology that is untested and extremely unlikely to deliver ‘clean’ energy generation. The general picture that the Democrats have been painting is one that says “We know we need to have at least an 80% reduction by 2050, but there’s no way we’ll get elected if we spell out what that means in terms of changes within the country.” It could also be interpreted as “We need an 80% reduction by 2050. Help! How the hell do we do that!”.

It goes without saying that whoever gets elected will be judged on what they actually deliver and not what they have pledged to do. Unfortunately, only the most optimistic observers will be expecting the new president to begin the groundbreaking green revolution now required to restrain global warming below catastrophic levels.


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This coming week, a few thousand people will be setting up the third annual Climate Camp, at Kingsnorth in Kent, to protest against the building of a new coal-fired power station in the near future.

The Climate Camp has already been set up in a field near Kingsnorth power station, and will be there all week, culminating in a day of direct action attempting to prevent the power station from functioning on the Saturday. The direct action will be what hits the headlines, for obvious reasons. You can expect lots of pictures of people with dreadlocks and angel-wings being dragged around by police in the papers on Sunday morning.

You can also expect to hear very little about the rest of the climate camp. Over the week around 200 workshops and talks will be taking place on all kinds of topics related to climate change. It will use energy produced using solar panels brought to the site, and all are welcome. Visitors and speakers at the camp will include Caroline Lucas MEP, George Monbiot, and Chris Davies MP, who wrote an article in The Guardian recently explaining why he is going to the camp.

So what’s it all about? The present Kingsnorth Power station needs to be replaced. A proposal by E.On to build a new coal-powered station was given the go-ahead by Medway council in January, leaving the decision of whether to build it to the Government.

Coal produces more carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel, so when we should be doing everything we can to reduce our carbon emissions, and the Government is including a planned 60% reduction in CO2 emissions by 2050, it’s suicide. Especially as this is the first of seven coal-powered stations planned by the Government.

It’s at this point that spokespersons from E.On start talking about carbon capture and storage (CSS). The idea’s simple – grab the carbon before it gets into the atmosphere and put it somewhere where it won’t cause global warming. Like underground. And it’s a good idea. It could reduce the carbon emissions from the new power plant by up to 90%.

And it’s at this point that practical people respond by reminding everyone that CCS isn’t yet available. The Government would like to have a demonstration power plant up and running by 2014 (two years after Kingsnorth will be ready), but they expect that this demonstration will take 15 years. 2029 then. Too little, far too late, to avoid catastrophic climate change. (None of this matters, because as it stands the new Kingsnorth power station may not be made ‘CCS ready’ anyway .

And that is where the arguments grind to a halt. The state of knowledge about CCS technology prevents it from going any further. If we knew that every new coal power plant was going to have CCS technology, and that this would reduce the emissions by 90%, then we would have a proper debate. Assuming, of course, that this could happen immediately.

But the sad fact is that we don’t have time to mess around. Estimations of when we could pass the point of no return with climate change vary wildly. This week the one hundred month campaign was launched, based on research saying that there are 100 months ‘to save the planet’, whereas James Hansen is telling us that we are already past the dangerous level of CO2 in the atmosphere, and we need to start reducing it, instead of just reducing the rate of increase.

So which is it? Well it doesn’t really matter. What we need to do is reduce our emissions to zero, and do it as quickly as possible.

I expect a few of the people at this years climate camp to be anarchist ‘greens’, that want to bring down society, overthrow the Government, and go back to living in tents and caves. Newspapers will refer to people at the camp as ‘environmental protestors’ or something similar, and most will be just that. But the majority of people at the camp are just concerned about the future of the human race, and the millions, if not billions, which will starve or die through global warming in the future. I’m not going to the camp because I want to save polar bears or ice caps. I want to save people.

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Wind. Great stuff. It blows around here and there (especially around the British Isles) and just waits for someone to come along and make electricity out of it. Brilliant.

But in the recent past we haven’t really been that bothered. Hans-Josef Fell (a German MP who was a driving force behind Germany’s Renewable Energy Sources Law) has a great little graph that he likes to show British audiences, which compares wind power in the UK and Germany from 1990-2003. Here it is………..


Of course, the British audience being British, usually respond by laughing loudly and exclaiming things like ‘Ha ha! – aren’t we crap! Oh we’re SO crap.’ Or ‘Well those sensible Germans would have done that wouldn’t they.’
And they’d be right. We are pretty bad at wind power. In fact, we’re pretty bad at all renewable sources of power here in Britain – only 5% of our electricity comes from renewable sources(1).

The EU has recently been telling its members what is required of them in terms of carbon emission cuts and renewable energy increases, as part of its plans to tackle climate change (2). So what does this mean for us in the UK? Well, we have to increase the percentage of total energy demand (including transport and heating) coming from renewables to 15% (we are currently at 1.3% according to The Independent (1)). It is likely that electricity generation will have to come up with a large proportion of this percentage, and therefore we will require around 40% of electricity to come from renewables. And remember, at the moment we are at 5%. We’ve got 12 years and counting.

According to the British Wind Energy Association these requirements will mean we have to build 7,350 new offshore, and 3,000 new land based wind farms(1). We’d better get going then. As a result there is going to be a huge number of arguments between planners and local environmentalists, as there have already been in several areas (3,4). A lot of very careful planning is required to ensure that the best solution is found, providing the maximum power generation with the minimum of immediate environmental cost.

However, if even this approach results in a direct decision between local ecology and turbine construction, the decision should surely be in favour of the turbine. Unfortunately some sacrifices will need to be made locally in order for the global environment to ultimately benefit. Keep this in mind if someone plans to build a turbine in your area. If it’s the local bird species you are worried about then don’t worry – climate change that is already in the pipeline will probably cause them to migrate north anyway. So either way it’s bye bye birdies.

It would logically follow that the best plan might be to build all the new turbines offshore so that these problems don’t arise – but I am sure there are corresponding problems at sea, and as always it will be a trade-off with other issues, such as cost.

But the real issue here shouldn’t be the windmills. It should be the target. Although the EU is rightly being commended internationally for discussing, and now enforcing, these targets, the world still needs to realise that a 20% reduction is too small. Much too small. And as I have said previously about the UK Government’s targeted reductions, they are easy to set, but a lot harder to meet – assuming that you want to meet them in the first place(5). These targets are a very significant step, but they are only the start of a very long and difficult process.

The UK MEP Graham Watson said as much in his response to the proposals – “….the Commission’s proposals while a welcome – and, by today’s standards, radical – departure from short term economic thinking are still only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to tackling climate change”(2). The tip of the iceberg indeed. A slightly unfortunate choice of metaphor.

But even these little targets are already too much for some people. I find it incredibly frustrating when spokespersons and people in positions of huge responsibility start to add to the resistance instead of logically attacking the problem we face. The latest on this list is Richard Lambert, director-general of the CBI (Confederation of British industry), who said this week “It can be done but it will cost a hell of a lot of money,” – “I think it is not realistic.” (6).

Cost hell of a lot of money??!?!! Of course it is Mr.Lambert! Not realistic?!? As leader of the CBI it’s partly your job to make it realistic. Now are you going to help us deal with it or are you going to continue adding to the problem?

1. Britain will need 12,500 wind farms to satisfy EU targets – Michael McCarthy, 24th January 2008.
2. MEPs give first reactions to climate change and energy package – 23RD Jan 2008. European Parliament Online.
3. How Whinash saw off the turbines – The Independent Online, Emily Dugan, 26th January 2008.
4. Wind farm plan is blown off course – The Independent Online, Michael McCarthy and Mark Hughes, 26th January 2008.
5. See ‘Targets’ on this site from September 2007.
6. CBI director says emissions target unrealistic and not cost-effective – Guardian Online, Ian Traynor, 30th Jan 2008.

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Recently the Environmental Audit Committee group of MPs, led by the Conservative MP Tim Yeo, produced their report ‘Are Biofuels Sustainable?’ in which they tried to find out the answer to the title (1). Their conclusion? That there should be a moratorium on biofuels until “technology improves, robust mechanisms to prevent damaging land use change are developed, and international sustainability standards are agreed”(1).

Regular worshippers at the church of George Monbiot – activist and sensible person generally – will know that he suggested this should be the answer to the problem of biofuels nearly a year ago (2) and this was also suggested more recently by the UN special rapporteur on the right to food, Jean Ziegler, who got a lot of press for saying that biofuels were “a crime against humanity”(3)

The word biofuel is a broad term used for a renewable fuel produced through biological reactions using the suns energy and carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They include fuels that are designed for use in conventional combustion engines such as ‘bioethanol’ and ‘biodiesel’ (this is the main appeal of biofuels – it gives Governments an apparent ‘get out of jail free card’ meaning they can appear to be combating climate change while causing minimal annoyance to the general public) as well as things like normal firewood.

Carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere when biofuels are burnt is offset by the carbon dioxide taken in to produce the fuel, and this is the basis for excitement about them.

So far so good, but clearly that is only half the story. There are two main problems with biofuels at the moment, each of which makes them potentially disastrous for the globe.

Firstly, the processes involved in much of biofuel production are large net producers of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases due to pesticides, harvesting and processing requirements – all of which requires more energy, which at the moment comes from burning fossil fuels. Overall many biofuels may actually cause more harm to the environment than fossil fuels do(4).

Secondly there is the link to food prices. As more and more farmers across the world begin to produce biofuels instead of basic food crops, the price of food will escalate and the global poor will suffer as a result (5), especially as the farmers likely to be paid to convert to these crops are in lesser developed countries.

There is also the problem of energy density. A very large amount of a biofuel crop (and therefore a large land area to grow it) is required to produce a relatively small amount of usable energy compared to the fossil fuels we are used to using. In a study by LMC International on biofuels and agriculture in 2006 (widely referenced since) it was found that in order to make 5% of fuel worldwide biofuels by 2015, we would need 15% more land for agriculture worldwide (6). That means saying goodbye to forests and rainforests (closely averted recently in Uganda (7)) as well as inevitable switching from food to fuel production. That would mean game over for trying to restrict climate change – and that’s just for 5%!

In 2007 the EU agreed to a target of 10% of transport fuel in Europe to come from biofuels by 2020(8). Less than a year later the EU Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas admitted that they had not foreseen the problems that this target would present(9) and that it would be reviewed, but as far as I am aware at the time of writing the target still stands.

So if biofuels are so bad why are there calls for a 5-year moratorium and not an all-out ban? The thinking behind this is that so-called ‘second-generation’ biofuels (which would demand another entire piece like this one to explain), with carefully controlled production, may still be able to provide renewable and ethical sources of energy in the future (although these are not likely to be viable according to the campaign group Biofuelwatch (www.biofuelwatch.org.uk)(10). Also, calculations on land requirements for biofuel production in the UK may not always take into account that many biofuel crops grown are dual purpose, and may simultaneously produce animal feed, possibly reducing required imports presently (according to the NFU – ref.11).

It remains to be seen whether these ‘second generation’ promises materialise, but whatever happens one thing is for sure – we can’t rely on biofuels to solve the problem of climate change.

The consequences of pursuing the use of the presently available biofuels are obvious and are already starting to take effect. Governments and International bodies need to discard their biofuel targets before they make the problem any worse. Pleading unfortunate ignorance of the consequences is not acceptable.

1. Are Biofuels Sustainable? – Environmental Audit Committee, First Report of Session 2007–08. Available from http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm/cmenvaud.htm#reports.
2. A Lethal Solution – George Monbiot, 27th March 2007.
3. UN independent rights expert calls for five-year freeze on biofuel production – UN News Centre, 26 October 2007.
4. How Green Are Biofuels? – Jörn Scharlemann and William Laurance, Science Vol. 319. no. 5859, pp. 43 – 44.
5. IMF concerned by impact of biofuels on food prices – AFP, October 17, 2007.
6. A Strategic Assessment of the Impact of Biofuel Demand for Agricultural Commodities – LMC International (2006).
7. Uganda ‘averts tragedy’ with reversal of decision to clear virgin forest for biofuel – Xan Rice, The Guardian, October 29, 2007.
8. EU ministers agree biofuel target – bbc.co.uk, 15th February 2007.
9. EU rethinks biofuels guidelines – Roger Harrabin, bbc.co.uk, 14 January 2008.
10. ‘Second Generation Biofuels: An Unproven Future Technology with Unknown Risks’ – Helena Paul and Almuth Ernsting, biofuelwatch.org.uk. Click here to download.
11. ‘UK biofuels – land required to meet RTFO 2010’ – National Farmers’ Union Online, 10 August 2006.

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The China Excuse

It has to be one of the most common things people say when discussing climate change issues. “But what about China? How can we really do anything about global warming when they are building twenty million new coal power stations a minute?”

Okay, I exaggerated slightly to make a point there, but we’ve all heard the argument.

The first thing to point out is that we all know (or think we know) about the huge number of power plants they are building in China, and the surge in pollution that will inevitably go along with their huge economic growth, but nobody has stopped to ask if they are doing anything to prevent global warming. This was a point that Jonathon Porritt picked up on recently –

“One new coal-fired power station a week (though you never hear about how many power stations they are closing down), two new nuclear reactors a year (the fastest ever nuclear build programme), vast new investments in renewables (wind, PV, hydro etc) and serious efforts (at long last!) to push energy efficiency throughout the economy.” (1).

At the conference in London a few weeks ago (see previous post – ‘Be The Change, Not the Conversation’) Professor CS Kiang, an expert in air quality and advisor to the Chinese Government, was under no illusions about China’s massive increase in pollution in connection with their growth. However he also discussed what the Chinese are doing, including Chongming Island near Shanghai which is home to almost a million people with sustainability as a core principle of it’s development (2).

The Chinese are also keen to tell the world how much they have invested in renewables this year (£9.7bn), as they hope this will help persuade more developed nations that they are taking the problem seriously (3).

The second, more important point (in this context at least), is that it is not total amounts of emissions that matter most – it is the per capita amount that is more important. China may have recently ‘overtaken’ the US as the world’s largest emitter (according to a study by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (4)), and if it hasn’t it soon will. Either way, the per capita emissions of the US (and many other countries including the UK) are still considerably higher than that of China. According to a the UN’s Human Development Report 2007/08 in 2004 the per capita CO2 emissions of the US and China were 20.6 and 3.8 tonnes of CO2 respectively(5).

If it was a game of ‘Preventing-Climate-Change Top Trumps’ then I can’t see the US winning. So who’s the naughty one eh?

Each person on the earth has an equal right to pollute the planet, and an equal responsibility not to. With that in mind, surely per capita emissions is the important measure here – and if that’s true, then we can all see who the ‘bad guys’ are.

And the US certainly aren’t doing themselves any favours. At the UN conference on climate change in Bali, the US’ resistance to agreeing defined targets – specifically a 40% reduction in emissions of the developed countries – has become increasingly apparent in the press, despite the Chinese, UK and EU being prepared to see this through (6,7,8). (The US are not completely alone in this position, with Japan and Canada indicating that they would prefer more emphasis on inclusion of China and India in UN proposals (8)). The main sticking point for the US is any kind of specific target. How can you have targets without a target?!?! This definitely makes the US the bad guys in Bali.

But the reality is that it doesn’t matter who the bad guys are. Everyone has to do everything in their power to prevent catastrophic climate change. If China and the US both started pumping out as much CO2 as they possibly could (some would argue they already are) then that doesn’t excuse us not doing everything we can in the UK.

Each and every country can say the same thing. We can all complain and wait for other countries to move, but the more countries take a step in the right direction the harder it is for the remaining ones to resist with the ‘but look at them!’ argument.

If, in fifty years time, we have done all we can in the UK, and we achieve a zero-carbon country, and the US and China are still pumping out CO2 emissions, then as the sea level rises and the storms and droughts wreak havoc on the world, we will be able to complain about it. But we have a hell of a long way to go in this country before we can claim that we are doing everything possible to avoid the climate crisis staring us in the face.

1. “China Junkie” – Jonathon Porritt, Nov. 27th 2007.
2. Chongming Island
3. “We may not get carbon deal, warns Benn” – David Adam, The Guardian Online, 13th Dec. 2007.
4. ‘China overtakes U.S. as top CO2 emitter: Dutch agency’ – Reuters, 20th June 2007.
5. “Human Development Report 2007/2008 – Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World” – United Nations Development Programme. This can be downloaded from here.
6. “Climate talks progressing despite US opposition to targets, Benn says” – David Adam, Guardian Online, 12th Dec. 2007.
7. “UN calls for 40 per cent cut in emissions by rich countries” – Daniel Howden, The Independent Online, 11th Dec. 2007.
8. “Deadlock Stymies Global Climate Talks” – Thomas Fuller and Peter Gelling, The New York Times Online, 12th Dec. 2007.

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Supermarkets. You gotta love ‘em.

(Hold on a second, you might think. Is this going to be a moan about flying food around the world and causing damage to the earth just because we feel like a few lychees now and again? Because we all know about that one – and anyway I’ve reduced my lychee consumption recently so he can piss off…………….)

It’s a good point, but I want to talk about much simpler things than that.

Firstly, plastic bags. Britain gets through about 8 billion plastic bags a year (1) – (from all shops, not just supermarkets. That might be quite a conservative estimate – some people say it’s up to 17billion, like Chris Huhne). Assuming a population of 60million that’s 133 per person. But babies don’t do too much shopping now do they, so a better measure might be per household. It’s about 324 (2). Just think what Blue Peter could make out of that many plastic bags! Oh we do like a good plastic bag.

But why bother? Seriously. What is there that we buy that we can’t carry in an ordinary bag – like a backpack or one of those nice wheelie suitcases that everyone has. Most people who are bothered will recycle their plastic bags from one trip to the next, which is obviously a good solution too. But really, who are we kidding? The vast majority of people who are doing a ‘weekly shop’ will be driving to the supermarket. According to the Department for Transport, car journeys accounted for 62% of visits to shops (that’s all shops, not just supermarkets) (3). If you drive to the supermarket and take your trolley to your car when you have paid, do you really need to put the food in bags at all?

Obviously I know why people want to use a bag. It’s easier. It’s convenient. Who wants to stand in a carpark for 2-3minutes transferring individual items to the boot when you can just lift them in in a few bags. Not to mention carrying them into the house when they get home, apple by apple.

So why don’t we all bring our own bags, re-used ones or backpack etc, when we go shopping? Because we don’t have to! They have plenty at the shop just ready to be used! Not to mention the huge inconvenience of having to remember to take a bag or two with us. (Would it really be that difficult to leave a bag in the car for shopping? Or add it to the list of things to remember………Keys, wallet, shopping list, bag!)

The solution? Get rid of them. Simple.
San Francisco has the right idea – they’ve decided to ban plastic bags in supermarkets and Pharmacies throughout the city (4). In April, Sainsbury’s in the UK did the same, giving out free reusable bags instead – but unfortunately only for a day (5). Ireland was way ahead of the game. In 2002 it decided to tax each plastic bag used (5). It resulted in a 90% reduction in their use(6).

While plans are being drawn up to ask Londoners to pay 10p per bag later this year (7) many bags offered by supermarket chains in the UK are now degradable. The Co-op introduced degradable bags in 2002 and recently Tesco’s have followed suit (8).

Great. Soon we will all be using either paper bags or degradable ones. But what’s the point? Why make something to use once that will then break down when you can have bags that can be reused for years? And anyway, when plastic bags degrade they are going to give off CO2. Wonderful.

Waste that degrades is still waste. And it’s waste that doesn’t have to be generated in the first place.

The second issue is much more simple. Open freezers and fridges. You know the ones – the chest freezers with the frozen pizzas in, and the open front chilled cabinets for veg and other things.

The question is obvious. Why not put a door on them? How much energy is being wasted by supermarkets trying to keep the produce cool without a door on their cabinets?! It wouldn’t be so bad if the rest of the store wasn’t heated and lit up like Guy Fawkes. But think about it. How hard would it be to put a door on them? And why don’t they have them in the first place?

George Monbiot (see links page), has asked just this question, amongst many others in his book “Heat”. His analysis and research is far greater than mine, so I will just quote a few facts from his book and advise you to read it for yourself.

Apparently, the reason for not putting doors on the freezers is that when they are opened and closed, the glass steams up so that you can’t see what is inside(9). That’s it. That’s the only reason. If anyone knows of another reason please tell me because I really hope that isn’t it. How pathetic is that? Again, it comes down to convenience.

When the supermarket chain Monbiot spoke to added doors to the top halves of the cabinets they cut their refrigeration budget “by around one quarter”(9). That’s some serious savings, just by adding a few doors. I know! Let’s put doors on all of them!

Oh I forgot. We can’t, they might steam up.

Supermarkets would save themselves a hell of a lot of time energy and money if they stopped supplying bags and put doors on freezers. But they won’t, because it just ain’t convenient.

1. Assumes things haven’t changed much since 2002 article “Planet Earth’s new nemesis?” – bbc.co.uk, 8th May 2002.
2. Based on approximately 24.7million households in the UK. 8 000 000 000 / 24 700 000 = 323.88664.
3. “Transport Statistics Bulletin”, 2005 – Dept. for Transport.
4. “Ban on plastic supermarket bags introduced” – Ben Quinn, The Telegraph,
5. “Sainsbury’s bans plastic carrier bags for a day” David Adam, Guardian Unlimited, Thursday April 19, 2007.
6. RTE news 1st July 2007.
7. ‘Bid to charge 10p per plastic bag’ – bbc.co.uk, 13th July 2007.
8. ‘All Tesco bags ‘to be degradable’ ‘ – bbc.co.uk, 10th May 2006,
9. “Heat – How we can stop the planet burning” – George Monbiot, Penguin Books, 2006.

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